It doesn’t matter what the activity is, but what does matter is what we do to ourselves in the activity. The simple act of sitting down can be a very profound learning experience. In sitting down you go through one of the most basic movements we do all of the time. Sitting down is an interrupted partial squat, and in our society that is as close to a full squat as most people get in their daily lives. So, over the years, many people lose their ability to do full squats – their knees hurt, and their thigh muscles can’t lower and raise them.
Let’s take a look at the mechanics of sitting down. Many flop into a chair, or brace their thighs with their arms to protect their knees, or put their hands behind them on the chair seat to lower themselves into sitting. The most common postural habit is to sway the lower back and bend the head backwards at the base of the neck, so you don’t lose sight of the room. Sitting down this way shortens the spine, as the head collapses back and down into the spine. The arching lumbar vertebrae take over the job of the hip joints. The hip joints function is to pivot us over the legs, as we stand up or sit down. So, we “protect” and tighten our hips and knees by sacrificing our backs and necks, and still end up harming our knees and hip joints.
This habitual loss of support of the back carries into all of our daily activities, and so in everything we do we shorten and compress our spines and wonder why this and that hurts. And when this and that hurts, we tense against the pain even more, and it hurts more. Then we do all we can to push the pain out of our consciousness, until we can’t tell if we’re hurting or not, or why we’re hurting. Eventually the pain is so great, that we have to seek help. That route is usually the traditional allopathic medical community – doctors and physical therapy. If this doesn’t help, then the Alexander Technique teacher may be the last resort before surgery is chosen, and in many cases the Alexander Technique allows the client to avoid surgery, stop damaging the body and let the body heal and stop hurting.
A large part of my job as an Alexander Technique teacher is to teach the client to let her legs do the work in any movement that she is overworking her back to accomplish. This is not unique in how good body mechanics is taught, but what is unique is that I teach the client to lengthen her spine in activity. This is accomplished by the head leading the spine which leads the body into movement. All physically and emotionally healthy humans and animals do this instinctively. Children usually learn poor postural habits in school, because most learning focuses on what you’re learning, not on what you’re doing to yourself. An example is hunkering down to the paper to learn to read or write. This is further reinforced by copying the poor posture of adults, parents etc.
Because most of us focus on results rather than how we achieve results, we hunker down to learn or do something, rather than allowing our spines to lengthen, and over time this makes us hurt. This compression of the disks and vertebrae transfers body wide into all of the other joints and muscles, and we lose the natural space between joints, and we feel very down and heavy. If you attempt to correct this hunkering down by holding onto good posture, you will increase pressure on the back and cause even greater pain, and your body will feel even heavier and tighter.
The Alexander Technique teacher instructs through touch, by example and verbally. A touch can be used to guide someone into and through a movement, such as sitting down. A guiding touch can show the client where he tenses, as he is sitting down. This gives the client the option to release a tense neck and remain released, as he goes through the motion of sitting down. I also verbalize to the client where he is tightening as he sits, and this combination of touch and words gives the client enough feedback to change a habit quickly, that has been causing him pain for years.
Intention is a very powerful factor in poor movement patterns. It’s fascinating to be teaching someone to sit down with ease, and before you ask them to sit, they are already “on the way” to the chair in her head. This usually manifests as sinking into her body to sit, even before she bends her knees. You can truly see this intention to sit in the body – the back shortens, the neck tightens and hands are placed on the thighs. At this point I ask the client to forget about sitting down and just stand. This is called inhibition in the technique, which means not automatically going into your old movement pattern in something you’ve done over and over. You remain in neutral, and then choose how you want to do differently what you’ve always done awkwardly.
“Being in neutral” is a wonderful concept in the Alexander Technique. It is being on balance in your body just before you move, so that when you are guided into movement by the teacher, you can be “surprised” and not lose your balance. This means if you are anticipating sitting down, and the teacher surprises you by asking you to walk, you won’t be thrown off balance.
I see this power of intention to do it the old way in musicians all of the time. Just the thought of playing his instrument sets up the whole familiar pattern of tensions in his body. His body is performing before the instrument is in his hands. He may be holding his breath in anticipation of “having” to play well, or tightening his shoulders, because he has always played with tight shoulders. This is where I make him aware of what he is doing and give him the choice to do something new that doesn’t harm the body.
Here is one of the most unique thing about the Alexander Technique. We’re trained to take care of ourselves, as we teach, by doing what we are instructing our clients to do. As I am putting my hands on a client, I am thinking an upward flowing spine in my body, my neck released and my legs in full contact with the ground. I’m asking and allowing my neck to release and my spine to lengthen, as I raise my arms to place them on the client. In this whole process I’m doing what I’m teaching. This means my whole body and mind is backing up my words, directions, to the client, and so through my touch and hands and words, I communicate to the client ease with my own ease.
There is a story about the Buddha. A mother takes her son to the Buddha and asks the Buddha to cure her son of his craving for sweets. The Buddha sends her away and tells her to return in two weeks. When she returns with her son, she asks him why he sent her away. The Buddha’s response was he hadn’t given up sweets, when she had approached him.
This is a beautiful story that sums up the Alexander Technique training in a nutshell. We train for three years letting go of our poor postural use habits, so that when we put our hands on a client our intentions come through hands that listen to what is happening in the client, and communicate clearly to the client what we would like her to do. Hands put on a client with this quality give a sense of safety to the client, and also allow the client to feel he has the space to release and expand. When a therapist or a bodyworker puts tense hands on you with a tense body, even though the therapist’s intention is for you to let go, you probably won’t do so easily or deeply.
The Alexander Technique gives the practitioner an exceptional set of tools to get clients out of a pain-tension cycle after an accident. A pain-tension cycle is what so many people do when they are physically hurting. They are in pain, and they tense against the pain. This tensing against the pain causes more pain, and they tense even more, which becomes a vicious cycle.
I want to take a look at whiplash after a car accident. There is so much trauma in the head neck and shoulders, that the client has almost no movement in the upper torso. This is because he is trying his best to stop the pain by holding everything still in the body. This is where table work is so beneficial in the Alexander Technique. On the table the client can reduce many of the postural variables exacerbating the pain.
Standing or sitting with whiplash can be incredibly difficult after an accident, to the point that he can’t find any way to stop hurting. As the client lies on the table, I verbally make him aware of how gentle this work is, and that pain is not something to be worked through, by going through more pain. My supportive hands and words, together invite the him to gradually let go of fighting the pain. I ask the client to let me know if what I’m doing hurts, so that I can change what I’m doing. All of this gradually helps him stop fighting the pain and begin to let the neck release and rebalance.
Pain is not a local event in the body. We tense our whole body when we’re hurting. I work with the whole body on the table, and it is my intention to teach the client to let go of fighting the pain, so she can stop hurting. This letting go of tensing against the pain can be dramatic, as the client let’s go of holding at deeper and deeper levels. In many cases the client experiences greater ease in her body, than she did before the accident.
At the table I move the client’s legs, arms, head and torso in gentle movements. This teaches the client to release her body, so I can move legs etc., without her tensing against being moved. Each time I lift and move a leg, an arm, the head, my hands are clearly conveying my intention that the client let go and allow space between the joints. Whenever you tense a muscle without movement, you reduce the space in the associated joint. If you tense a muscle before movement, you stress the joint.
I move from area to area of the client’s body asking for release into movement. I may slide a hand under a shoulder blade and ask the client to let his shoulder blade release into my hand, instead of being welded to the ribs. This is how I give feedback to the client. What I do is akin to biofeedback for the client. My words and hands let the client know if they are tightening rather than releasing. This feedback coupled with my patience in letting the client take as long as he needs to let go, can fairly quickly bring an end to his hurting. Then he can begin to move without bracing for pain.
Our skeleton defines what movements are possible in the human body, but most therapists talk about movement in terms of what the muscles do. This is dealing with the reality that the muscles do move our bones, but the actual experiential process of moving is so complicated, that it is simpler and creates a more integrated movement to visualize our skeleton in motion.
Example: If I ask a client to curl a dumbbell, they will invariably go to the bicep and tell the bicep to shorten to curl the weight. After she has curled the weight, I now ask her to just hold the dumbbell in her hand at her side and let go of her intention to curl the weight, which releases the bicep. I also ask her to feel her back lengthening, as her shoulder girdle is supported on her ribs, which are attached to the back, which gives full support to the arm. Then I ask her to think of the arc of the dumbbell as she curls it, and then arc the weight without forcing a bicep contraction. The amount of neurons being fired in the bicep will be less, and this creates ease in curling the weight. The mind/body really experiences lifting in a different way, when the minimum necessary is done with a lengthening powerful back.
Repetitive movement pain is another example, like whiplash, where an injured person gets into a pain-tension cycle, except repetitive injuries build up over time, unlike whiplash. The wrists of someone who uses a word processor a lot begin to hurt, and in an unconscious attempt to stop the pain. She tenses the wrists and forearms neck and shoulders and begins to hurt in all of these areas. This is carpal tunnel syndrome, and the prescription is arm braces, and/or pain killers, and/or spinal adjustments, and/or ergonomic chair and keyboard and wrist supports, and/or surgery, none of which addresses the fact that the typist uses her body poorly. If anything is said about posture, it is done in major generalizations, which means she is told to hold her body a certain way, which rarely works.
You can’t change major postural misuse that causes carpal tunnel syndrome with a few immobilizing postural suggestions. The typist needs to be taught how to sit balanced at the word processor and do the minimum amount of work. I teach her how to tap the keys easily and not hammer the keys, which reverberates through the wrists and forearms and causes major pain.
The quickest change I can make for the typist is to put him in a cushioned chair that creates a 90 degree angle of the torso to the floor, with the knees slightly lower than the hips and the feet fully on the floor, so that the legs can be completely supported and at ease. The most crucial part of the chair’s support is in supporting the back perfectly vertically all the way up the back behind the shoulders. This allows the vertebrae to balance on top of each other all the way to the head, and this is less muscular work than being tilted backwards in an unsupportive chair, which forces the head and neck forwards on the spine. Sitting truly vertically positions the ribcage, so it can fully support the shoulder girdle and this allows the arms be light and at ease at the sides of the torso.
Place the keyboard so that the arms and be light and easy at the sides of the torso as you type, with the fingers gently curved over the keys and the wrists slightly higher than the main knuckle. Allow the joints of the shoulder girdle, the elbows, the wrists and the fingers to be easy and open, by allowing the skeleton to be minimally supported by the musculature of the torso. All of this is organized by a head balancing on the tip of the spine, and the words on the screen are allowed to come to the eyes, rather than the head collapsing forward into the screen to see.
Let the chair support the legs, so that the thighs and hamstrings are released, so that the head of the femur isn’t jammed into the hip joints. Type with the body in expansion, so there is no wear and tear on the joints, and then the muscles aren’t overworked and immobilizing the body and causing pain.
We teach the client how to get out of trouble and how to trouble shoot to stay out of trouble. We ask questions and offer solutions and teach the client mechanically advantageous ways of using the body, so that the client is learning to take care of himself. That is why we call ourselves teachers rather than therapists. A lesson or session is where the client is asked to fully participate, so that together we can figure out what is causing the pain and the best way to change the habits creating the hurting. Alexander Technique teachers teach the client to problem solve by generalizing the principles of good body use. These are: 1) move with the head leading a lengthening spine, 2) allow space between the joints, 3) balance on the skeleton, 4) and use the least amount of work in an activity with high energy.
We do this by giving the client an accurate kinesthetic sense of her body, by making the client aware of the relationship of all of the parts of the body to each other and to allow balanced alignment and flow between the parts. Every time a client is made aware of excessive tension or collapse in some part of her body, and shown an alternative, a change is initiated. The more we revisit these poor postural habits, the quicker the client can replace them with habits of ease and balance. Many times these new habits of balance and ease are experienced as being off balance. For example, if one of the client’s shoulders is lower than the other, and I guide the client into bringing the shoulders into balance, he may experience the shoulder that was lower, as now higher than the other shoulder. It is this misperception that keeps most people from changing destructive old habits. It is my job to help guide the client through these postural changes, until her newly balanced body feels “right”.
With a whole lot of feedback, the Alexander Technique teacher guides the client through her transformational postural changes, so that the client doesn’t return to the habitual misuse that created the pain. As we guide, we teach the client to learn to trouble shoot for herself, and find the mechanically advantageous way to do any activity. The Alexander Technique learning process is to guide the client, until the client has an accurate kinesthetic sense of her body and can independently solve her own postural problems. Then, the Alexander Technique teacher becomes a resource to be revisited for advice when needed.